Prof. Elihu Richter to President Lee Bollinger on Ahmedinjad Visit

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Sept 23 2007
Hebrew University
School of Public Health and Community Medicine
Unit of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
And Center for Injury Prevention
Genocide Prevention Program

Mr Lee Bollinger .
President of Columbia University in the City of New York

Subject: Columbia: Tragedy Repeated Becomes Farce

Dear Mr Bollinger

As an alumnus of Columbia College (1959), I am writing to express my
belated congratulations for your leadership in fighting the recent
proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions. But the reason
for this letter is to express my shock, horror and disgust over the
invitation to President Ahmadinejad of Iran to
speak at Columbia. The invitation was grotesque and obscene. It raises
a horrible question: Is Columbia, by giving this inciter to genocide
a prestigious academic podium, empowering him, and thereby serving as
an accomplice, enabler and bystander to actions which international
law defines as a crime against humanity? (See below)

More fundamentally, it remains unclear what there is in Mr
Ahmadinejad’s record as an inciter to genocide, a Holocaust denier,
and promoter and supporter of genocidal terror and oppressor of his
own people which qualified him as a “renowned intellectuals and
cultural icon”, –to use the phrase attributed to the Dean who
invited him–unless we were to accept the norms and values of Dr
Joseph Goebbels-who himself was an intellectual and cultural icon
of sorts. Using these norms, the University would have invited
Adolph Hitler -he wrote an iconic best seller-Mein Kampf–in the
early 1920’s. (Actually, Columbia did something as bad or worse: it
sponsored a full page ad in the NY Times on behalf of eugenics,
signed by many professors from Columbia, Harvard, Hopkins and the
Museum of Natural History). We should be grateful that the
expressions of outrage in Columbia and the city of New York, most
movingly by Councilwoman Christine Quinn, and many others,
prevented another fiasco at Columbia.

In Feb of 2006, the International Association of Genocide Scholars
( ) and GenocideWatch ( recommended
condemning Mr Ahmadinejad for his incitement to genocide and
Holocaust denial, based on the Rome Statute of the International
Criminal Code and the precedents of the Rwandan genocide. A subsequent
petition by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East ( ) endorsed this resolution in more expanded version. In June 2007, the US House of Representatives
voted 411 to 2 to recommend procedures for initiating an indictment
of President Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide and Holocaust
denial. (, and a parallel resolution is now
under review in the US Senate. In the light of Mr Ahmadinejad’s
repeated statements, it is outrageous that Columbia University-or
for that matter, any place— should give an official platform to a
head of state who has been inciting to genocide, genocidal terror
and Holocaust denial. Would Columbia have invited the Rwandan
journalists and intellectuals who were convicted of inciting to
genocide in that country? Or to Dr Karadazic, the Serbian psychiatrist
and “poet”, (also an intellectual and cultural icon) who incited to
the Bosnian genocide. It seems that the NYC Fire and Police Departments, in refusing Mr
Ahmadinejad’s request to visit Ground Zero, showed more common sense
than Columbia.

I believe there is something fundamentally wrong-indeed
pathologically so– about Columbia’s failure to define the
standards for determining who it invites to speak on the campus and
who it does not, or worse, to use standards divorced from
fundamental principles of ethics and decency. I submit that the
record suggests that Columbia has no standards, or worse, if it
does, they are morally flawed.

The following episode is my evidence for this statement.
In 2004, I met Rev Jewelnel Davis, the University Chaplain, via
Professor Jacob Neusner, of Bard College, and gave her a video copy
of the film, Two States of Mind, From Tel Aviv to Ramallah, a
documentary which explored, with sensitivity, humor, thoughtfulness
and tact, some of the emotional subtexts pertaining to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict-as mirrored in the tensions of a
complex relationship between two women who were brought together to
navigate a vehicle as part of the motor car race for peace in the
Saharan desert. I suggested showing the film in some kind of
interfaith meeting on campus in Earl Hall, and Rev Davis graciously
passed it on. I admit to a bias towards the film, since its
Director, Shira Richter, is my daughter, and we are proud of her.

The film has been shown in Israel, to many joint Jewish-Arab
meetings, many women’s groups, and a conference in Turkey sponsored
by an Israeli-Palestinian think tank, and around the world-Berlin,
London, Cuba, all over India, many TV stations– and has won many
prizes and awards and favorable reviews. Even so, and after an
initially positive response from Columbia, I received an email from
someone in the administration saying that the film would provoke
controversy, and therefore was considered unsuitable for Columbia
students, and could not be shown. There also was a problem with some
trivial expenses.

As a Columbia alumnus, I would like to receive an answer to the
following question: What are the standards for iconic cultural and
intellectual achievement which led the University to invite Mr
Ahmadinejad to speak -twice-in 2006 and 2007, but to ban Ms
Richter’s film in 2004? Since when is incitement to genocide and
Holocaust denial more “cultural and intellectual” than a thoughtful
film which honestly probes how a political conflict penetrates the
emotional interactions between an Israeli and a Palestinian woman?
And what were the sums Columbia was willing to expend to cover the
costs of his visit?

It is my understanding that Professor Richard Bulliet, a
distinguished member of the Columbia faculty in interested in
promoting Islamo-Christian dialogue (why not
Islamo-Christian-Jewish-Hindu dialog?) orchestrated the invitation
to Mr Ahmadinejad, with a view to clearing up misunderstandings on
the nature of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. As someone who has been
active in various joint Israeli-Palestinian projects in the field
over the past 30 years, I am all for such dialogue, (although I think
projects which create jobs are better) and for Columbia taking an
active role in promoting such dialogue. May I suggest that Columbia
start by
inviting the head of the Teheran Iranian Bus drivers’ Union strike
against poor working conditions and giving him an award for moral
courage? According to newspaper reports, Mr Ahmadinejad’s
government dealt with him by cutting off his tongue. I believe that
by sucking up (there is no other term) to vicious thugs such as Mr
Ahmadinejad who cut out the tongues of dissidents or suppress
dissent,* Columbia gives them legitimacy and strengthens their hands
against those whom they oppress, intimidate, torture, mutilate and

If, as Santayana said, tragedy repeated becomes farce, in this case
farce repeated becomes tragedy. The place to meet and debate with Mr
Ahmadinejad is in an international court of law for crimes against
humanity, where he can defend himself from the charge of incitement to

Elihu D Richter MD MPH
Professor Emeritus
BA, Columbia College 1959
*Amehdinejad’s imprisonment of Haleh Esfandiari and others _
2) Amedinejad’s threats to banish “liberal” academics from Iran’s

Prof. Elihu Richter to President Lee Bollinger on Ahmedinjad Visit

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Elihu D. Richter

Elihu D. Richter heads the Genocide Prevention Program at Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine and is associate director, Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide.

Read all stories by Elihu D. Richter